Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

racial science

Filed under: random — alison @ 09:54

Yesterday I read a New York Times article by Armand Marie Leroi about racial genetics:

Then my mother forwarded me a transcript of an interview with him:

Bio of Mr. Leroi from :
“ARMAND MARIE LEROI was born in Wellington, New Zealand. A Dutch citizen, his youth was spent in New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. He was awarded a Bsc. by Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada in 1989, and a Ph.D. by the University of California, Irvine in 1993. His doctoral work was supervised by Michael Rose and concerned the genetics of ageing in fruit flies. This was followed by postdoctoral work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, in Scott Emmons’s laboratory. Here he began to work on growth in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and its relatives. In 1996 he was appointed Lecturer at Imperial College London; in 2001, Reader in Evolutionary Developmental Biology. He lives in London.

He is the author of Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, winner of The Guardian First Book Award, 2004. ”

He is careful to say that racism is a bad thing, and that the genetic bases for racial differences is simply a fascinating scientific question. He also says, “these days anthropologists and geneticists overwhelmingly emphasise the similarities among people from different parts of the world at the expense of the differences. From a political point of view I have no doubt that’s a fine thing. But I suggest that it’s time that we grew up.”

What, he thinks that being careful about the consequences of your ideas is a sign of immaturity? I can’t say I agree.

I’m a little worried about the pickup his book has had: people seem to be saying finally, permission to talk about race! A practical use for the human genome project: scientific vocabulary for discussing race in polite company! Whee-haw!

Why? Sure, we are meat machines and our genes affect everything we do. (At a very basic level, a human can’t learn to do anything that humans can’t do. Fly, for instance.) Variations in our genes can be reasonably expected to have effects on the various things we do as humans.

But so what? We are learning animals. We sacrifice years to learning basic things like walking that other animals are programmed to do within minutes of birth. This enables us to adapt to all kinds of different physical and social environments. We can learn to live in the arctic or in deserts; as hunter-gatherers or accountants; we can learn to button our shirts with our toes if we happen to be born without hands; we can learn trust and pacifism or fear and war. Sure, some of us learn some of these things more easily than others. That’s what makes us so successful as a species: in any group there will be someone who can get the hang of a new situation and lead the way.

But what is the social value in emphasising the genetic basis for variation?

One of the big things now is pharmaceuticals which work better in some genetic groups than others. But calling this race is kind of strange in countries (like the Americas) where most individuals come from a genetically mixed background. If the pharmaceutical companies know why drugs work better in some people than others – a variation in Cytochrome P, for instance – then test for that. Because while the group might have a statistically raised frequency of a particular genetic variation, the individual taking the drug either has it or they don’t.

Another thing that people eager to talk about race bring up is the variation in disease rates among different population groups. Typically the greater rates of high blood pressure in Americans of African descent. Well, until the social reasons for this variation are controlled for, why bother looking at the genetic reasons? Because it’s simply not true that all people of African descent everywhere in the world have high blood pressure.

Anyway, I was supposed to be at work half an hour ago. So I’m going to stop now. I haven’t read Mr. Leroi’s book, but in his interviews his science seems to be very shaky. I could go on and explain why, but maybe later. Now I have to go.

[originally transmitted by e-mail March 16, 2005]

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